As someone who grew up surrounded by acres of Canadian shield wilderness—in a place where bears would casually saunter up onto the porch—I was far away from a bustling Asian megacity as one could get. My hometown of Carp, Ontario, was a kind of one-horse town, unless of course, it was “Carp Fair,” when the town was filled with Clydesdales pulling wagons, jumping competitions, heifer beauty pageants, and antique tractor parades.
Despite the once-a-year-jamboree, Carp tended to be pretty quiet. It didn’t even have a traffic light until the early 2000s. So when I moved to Quebec to attend McGill in 1996, I found the streets of Montreal to be a veritable phantasmagoria by comparison. Living in this French-speaking city was, in a sense, my first experience of “living abroad,” and once I became familiar with the charms of foreign cities, it was hard to give them up.
In 1999, I had the chance to visit Beijing with the lovely Michaud family. It is to the Michauds that I owe a huge debt of gratitude, for this trip was a pivotal moment in my life. Not only did it open my country-girl eyes, but it also provided a direction for my career and countless opportunities for both learning and friendship.
I was in my third year of an art history degree when the Michauds suggested we sign up for an all-inclusive package tour—the kind of tour which Evan Osnos explores in his article on Chinese-style tourism. Trundling on and off a bus, our group of jet-lagged American tourists were led through the Ming Tombs and the Forbidden City and lured towards countless shopping opportunities. We visited government stores staffed with phalanxes of uniformed staff, lining the counters with their bored expressions and a dreary cloisonné factory, where artisans sat in blue lab coats under the buzz of fluorescent lights, working metal into overpriced cloisonné globes and goblets.
Despite the smog and the chilling temperatures of the reluctant Beijing spring, I somehow managed to fall in love with China. Though I was almost finished my art history degree, I took on another major in East Asian Studies and spent that extra year poking around the Asian grocers, dimsum restaurants and bubble tea shops of St. Laurent and Rue de La Gauchetière in the sleepy Chinatown of Montreal—these morsels providing sustenance until I would eventually return.
The next year under the tutelage of Wang Laoshi, my (Mandarin teacher Bill Wang), I launched into the Sisyphean task of learning Chinese guided by the likes of Gubo and Palanka—the vaguely foreign-sounding hero and heroine of “Practical Chinese Reader”—a 70s-era mainstay of many early Chinese learning programs. I developed a basic grasp of Chinese, learning the buzzwords of socialist policy with such vocabulary such as “The Four Modernizations” and “Vulcanization” of steel.
In the summer of 2000, I was back in China, studying at Nankai University in Tianjin stuffing my cheeks with “dabing juan jidan” 大饼卷鸡蛋—northern Chinese style egg wraps slathered in soybean paste and chili sauce—under the bright-red flowers of the pomegranate trees. It was these moments—and our jaunts to the market filling our enamel bowls high with pot-stickers and fried chicken cutlets—which were apt rewards for the long hours of rote-learning. (Come to think of it, this is perhaps where I developed my passion for street food.)
In the fall, when I returned to McGill for my final year, I somehow managed to wangle a scholarship to go back to China again in 2001, to study at Fudan University in Shanghai, where I was to live for the next 16 years. During my years in China, I worked in various capacities in the cultural field, writing, curating, analyzing and organizing. I was married to Chinese artist Chen Hangfeng for seven years which provided me a unique view of not only the art world but of the ins and outs of Chinese family life.
Jumping forward a decade or so when, I was working as an independent curator from 2017-2015, I began to struggle with the restrictions of the “Chinternet” as information was only available at “trickle-speed”—like the dial-up I had in my dorm at McGill in the late 90s. VPNs were unreliable and as my practice became more research-focused I was beginning to feel starved of information.
The situation was so bad that friends of mine would take “internet holidays” to Korea or the Philippines in order to get work done more efficiently.
Beyond the cyber-starvation, I was also feeling a hankering to be close to nature again. I had developed a cycling habit and found myself heading out every other weekend to the mountains for some much-needed ecotherapy. Given the air quality issues in China,
it became necessary to check air quality index before going on big rides—if it tipped above 150, we would opt to stay indoors. For me, both nature and clean air became a much-desired luxury—prompting me to spend hours on long-distance busses to escape to the hills of Anhui.
At this time, Shanghai was experiencing a wave of repatriation as the jobs of many long-term expats were localized. At the same time, a number of my Chinese friends, including my ex-husband were immigrating to New York, Amsterdam, and Paris. This and the growing restrictions on individual freedoms made it seem foolhardy to continue living in China—this place where the weather changes swiftly according to the direction of the political winds.
I settled in Toronto, which was another new city to me and also very foreign in different ways. For one, I had lived abroad so long that I needed to re-acquaint myself with the customs and habits of Canadians—but also learn about the various cultures which call Toronto home. My current neighborhood is a patchwork of Ethiopians, Greeks, and Portuguese, further east is Korea Town and just south in Parkdale is Little Tibet. I’ve honestly seen more monks wandering around Toronto than I ever did in China—there is even a Buddhist home church in my apartment building where one can hear rhythmic chanting emanating from behind the door.
All of this is to say that Toronto was not the capital of boredom that I expected it to be and also that it has served to broaden my global perspective along with several trips to South America. Throughout my work as an editor, writer, gallerist, curator, and finally to my work in museum consulting and planning, I have never lost that initial curiosity sparked by my first adventures in Montreal Chinatown—that need to explore and attempt to understand other cultures, that sense of being a “third culture kid” or halfway-in-between-er.
I live in Toronto but with my feet on different continents, making frequent trips back to China and other parts of Asia, and following China through podcasts, reading, and research. You can take the girl out of China, but you can’t take the China out of the girl.